Small Wars Journal

“Passing it On”: Two SFAAT Teams in Afghanistan and Lessons Learned for Future Advisors

Mon, 10/27/2014 - 6:14am

“Passing it On”: Two SFAAT Teams in Afghanistan and Lessons Learned for Future Advisors

Thomas McShea and Kyle Harnitchek

In November 2012, when First Brigade of the 101st Airborne deployed to Kunar and Nangarhar provinces of Afghanistan, we were charged with employing Security Force Advise and Assist Teams (SFAAT) in order to facilitate the transfer of security responsibilities to Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in the region.  While this mission removed US Forces from the primary roll of fighting and winning the counterinsurgency, it came with its own set of challenges.  Chief among these were re-tasking a large portion of the Brigade to become advisor teams, developing a framework for them to effectively operate within, and rapidly employing that system in order to make the most out of a nine-month deployment.

In this article, we will highlight some of the operational mechanics involved in the SFAAT mission, and also provide key lessons learned from it, based on our experiences serving on two different SFAAT teams, Team Phalanx and Team Archangel.  Team Phalanx (on which the first author served) replaced Captain Colby Krug’s Team Beast at Combat Outpost Fortress in southern Kunar, which had advised the local Afghan Combat Support Battalion from March through November 2012 (“When Company Command Becomes an Advisory Tour,” SWJ, 2013).  Team Archangel (on which the second author served) advised an Afghan Infantry Battalion at COP Shinwar in Nangarhar Province.  The goal in sharing this information is to provide continuity for others who may be tasked with similar advisory missions in the future.

Team Phalanx

Team Phalanx was a sixteen-man element assigned to advise the 4/2/201 Combat Support Kandak (Dari for “battalion”) at COP Fortress.  The team was led by a Major with a Captain as his executive officer (XO) and a Sergeant First Class as his noncommissioned officer in charge (NCOIC).  All three were Engineers.  Additionally there was an Infantry Captain, a Field Artillery Captain, an Adjutant-Generals Captain, a Signal Lieutenant, a Military Intelligence Lieutenant, and an Armor Lieutenant.  For noncommissioned officers, Team Phalanx had two more Sergeants First Class of the Artillery and Infantry branches.  The team medic and Signal NCO were both Sergeants.  A small security force was comprised of two Staff Sergeants and a Specialist.  With this wide array of specialties, this team was well suited to pair up with its assigned Afghan Kandak.

The 4/2/201 CS Kandak consisted of a headquarters Toulay (Dari for “company”), a Recon Toulay, an Engineer Toulay, a Field Artillery Toulay, and a maintenance platoon.  While the Phalanx team leader focused on coaching and making recommendations to the Kandak commander, the XO divided his time between the Kandak XO, operations officer, and the engineer Toulay commander.  The NCOIC worked with the Kandak sergeant major as well as the engineer first sergeant.  While the artillery and headquarters Toulay commanders were paired with a Captain and a Sergeant First Class, the Armor Lieutenant (the first author) was paired with the Recon Toulay commander. One Infantry Sergeant First Class had to rotate his time between the Recon and headquarters First Sergeants.  The Signal, Intelligence, and Adjutant-Generals personnel were matched to their respective staff counterparts within the headquarters Toulay, and the team security force rotated in with each advisor section to secure them from any potential insider threats. 

One of the challenges Team Phalanx faced from the beginning was its lack of a logistics officer or NCO to work with the Kandak supply section.  To work around this, the Adjutant-Generals Captain was given that additional role.  Similarly, the Signal officer also had a dual role, and was assigned to work with the Afghan maintenance platoon leader.

Early in the deployment, the team’s focus was on building a solid rapport with the Afghans.  This did not take long, as they already understood that Team Phalanx was there to assist them in the same way the outgoing SFAAT had been doing.  Assessing the Afghans’ readiness to take over responsibility of the area of operations required a little more time and effort.  Whether it was weapons ranges with the Recon Toulay, crew drills on the artillery’s D-30 gun line, or observing weekly maintenance, all aspects of the partnered Afghan Kandak’s operations were under scrutiny by the advising team.  Such comprehensive involvement was critical in enabling each advisor section to establish three or four major “lines of effort” nested within the team leader’s focus areas.  For the remainder of the deployment, the team used these lines of effort to assess the Afghan’s progress in training, tactical proficiency, and garrison operations.

Daily reports were given every evening to the brigade-level SFAAT, led by a Lieutenant Colonel located at FOB Joyce.  This brigade SFAAT was critical as they enabled advisors to shadow-track supply requests, personnel moves, and upcoming missions.  This information sharing was a major means to identify systemic problems in the Afghan’s reporting channels.  Through them and their higher-level counterparts, we could apply from either the top or the bottom of the Afghan chain of command to diagnose issues and develop plans to overcome them.  Also important was sharing daily reports across all the SFAATs in Kunar.  All of the Afghan National Army (ANA) elements in Kunar fell under the same brigade, giving advisors some context and perspective to work under.  This was particularly important for the Combat Support (CS) Kandak, whose soldiers circulated all over Kunar in support of the infantry Kandaks while also managing their own battle-space.  These advisor chains and reporting channels were a constant backdrop while working towards accomplishing the Brigade mission in Kunar.  The other major piece was the operational mechanics of working with the US Infantry Company at COP Fortress to assess the ANA in tactical missions throughout the area of operations.

The American infantry company at COP Fortress, who will be referred to as the battle-space integrators (BSI), was Bayonet Company, 2-327 IN “No Slack.”  They consisted of three platoons, a mortar section, a maintenance section, and their headquarters element.  At any given time, one platoon was on a week rotation at COP Penich, across the Kunar River from Fortress.  The other two were either on tower guard or on patrol duty.  The commander of this company fully understood the Brigade mission and the framework our Brigade Commander had provided to accomplish it.  By working closely together and knowing who played what role in the mission, Team Phalanx, the BSI, and the Afghan Local Police (ALP) SFAAT at Fortress were able to successfully and completely transition control of the area of operations to the Afghans in roughly seven months.

Major missions were centered on the Afghan Commander’s intent; and aside from limited force protection patrols and routine movements between bases, US forces did not lead combat patrols since the SFAAT was there to assess and coach the ANA battalion. Afghan led missions were driven by the Kandak Commander, and often at the recommendation of the SFAAT leader to the Kandak Commander or Afghan Brigade Commander.  As an SFAAT, the challenge was to coordinate the Afghan mission plan with enough time for the BSI commander to request the assets needed for US force protection.  Also challenging was ensuring an Afghan face was maintained on each of these missions, and requiring the Kandak not to rely on American combat power and assets.

This took some initial trial and error, but after about two months, a good system was established between all the US elements at COP Fortress.  On a typical Kandak mission, the SFAAT team leader would notify the BSI commander as soon as the Kandak commander identified an upcoming mission—usually a week or two in advance.  By letting the BSI commander know, he could begin requesting any required assets while they waited for the full Afghan plan to be established.  Advisors would work directly with their counterparts to coach them as they prepared for the mission, while feeding any available information about the plan back to the team XO.  Understandably, translating a combat order from Dari, through an interpreter, from soldiers possessing only rudimentary understanding of map reading and mission command was challenging. This process resulted in two parallel planning efforts: one on the Afghan side, and another on the American side. 

These efforts would culminate on the day before the mission when the Afghan leaders would formally brief their plan and conduct a rehearsal over a terrain model.  Present at this briefing would be the company advisors, the SFAAT leadership, and the BSI commander with his platoon leaders.  On the following morning, US forces would move out in trail to the Afghan main element.  Once the Kandak Commander had established his tactical action center (TAC), the SFAAT would co-locate with him in order to allow advisors to track and assess the mission.  The BSI commander, along with a forward observer and his fire support officer, would also remain with the SFAAT team leader to stay “plugged in” throughout the mission.  Meanwhile, the BSI platoon and mortar section would move to where they could secure the SFAAT from potential threats.  Additionally, the SFAAT would always maintain one advisor at the Afghan tactical operations center (TOC) back at COP Fortress as well as an artillery advisor to double check and deconflict any Afghan outgoing fire missions.

If at any time US forces came into enemy contact during the mission, the fight was controlled and managed by the BSI while the SFAAT continued to monitor the Afghan situation.  All assets and reporting went through the BSI commander, and all of his tactical decisions were made while accounting for and considering first the Afghan mission and disposition in the area.  In keeping with the Brigade Commander’s guidance, this allowed both advisors and BSI personnel to put multiple sets of eyes on what the Afghans were doing and how effectively they were accomplishing it.  With these operational mechanics, and with the continuous routine advising effort each day at COP Fortress, all US Forces were able to withdraw to FOB Joyce in late May 2013.  At this point Team Phalanx and Bayonet Company transitioned to a “Level II” advisory status.  Level II advising meant a weekly patrol from FOB Joyce to COP Fortress to briefly check on the ANA and assess their ability to sustain themselves and their mission set in the absence of direct American support.  After about a month and a half, the SFAAT mission was again handed off to elements of the 10th Mountain Division who carried on with Level II advising throughout Kunar.

Team Archangel

Unlike the Kandak level SFAATs operating in Kunar province, those in Nangarhar were led almost exclusively by Armor and Infantry Captains as their personnel were from the Brigade’s Cavalry Squadron.  The SFAAT command structure was a Brigade (BDE) level SFAAT at FOB Fenty (Jalalabad Airfield) which advised the ANA Brigade Commander and served as higher headquarters to the three Infantry Kandak level SFAATs operating at outlying COPs and FOBs.

The Infantry Kandak SFAATs in Nangarhar were modeled after the BDE level team with a lead advisor for the Kandak Commander and counterparts for the Kandak staff.  The only addition to this was the Company Advisor OIC and NCOIC responsible for advising five ANA infantry Toulays.  Each Infantry Kandak SFAAT was based around what had been a Cavalry Troop’s senior leadership with Military Intelligence and Signal positions being filled by personnel from the Special Troops Battalion or the Brigade Staff.  Due to personnel changes within the original Troop about half of the advisors were either new to Troop, Squadron, or the Brigade.

Archangel SFAAT was led by an Armor Captain and a Cavalry Scout First Sergeant.  The Team’s Executive/Operations Officer (X3) was an Armor First Lieutenant.  An Infantry Lieutenant served as our Adjutant and an Intelligence Staff Sergeant (SSG) the S2.  While the team’s Supply officer was an Armor Lieutenant, the Signal officer was an actual Signal Lieutenant.  An Artillery Lieutenant and a Forward Observer SSG served as the Fire Support Officer and Fire Support NCO respectively.  The team had a medic as a medical advisor along with a Cavalry Scout SSG and three Cavalry Scout Sergeants serve as the security force.   A senior Infantry First Lieutenant (the second author) served as the Toulay Advisor, and his former Platoon Sergeant, a Cavalry Scout Sergeant First Class was his NCOIC.  In addition to advising the Toulay Commanders, the Toulay advisors would go on to advise the Kandak Operations, Religious and Cultural Affairs Officer (RCA), and Training and Education Officer as their fields of operations, information operations, and training tied directly to the success of the Toulays.

Throughout the deployment Archangel SFAAT tinkered with various battle rhythms and advisory roles; by the third month of deployment the team’s operational mechanics were established.  The team leader had each advisor dictate an end state for their counter parts.  For example, the Toulay advisor team’s end state was: “2/4 ANA Toulays capable of planning and conducting tactically safe and sound organic patrolling at the Platoon level and above”.  At the conclusion of the relief-in-place with the out-going unit, each advisor took time to carefully assess their ANA counter parts and build rapport.  The Toulay advisor team was not only working with the ANA Commanders and First Sergeants, but with each Toulay as a whole—every soldier, NCO, and officer.  Relationships were quickly formed at all levels within the company.  We then compiled a task list and spent a week observing all we could in sector and in training scenarios on the COP. 

To reach our end state we used these observations to establish our lines of effort in planning, patrolling, safety, training and NCO development.  Within each line of effort we developed a training plan to support the end state.  As we pursued these lines of effort, it became apparent that the Toulays were not being challenged in their patrolling and operations, nor were they set to continue organic training.  In response, we added new areas in Operations, Training/Education, and Information Operations each with its own end state.  This refocus will be discussed in further detail as a “Lesson Learned”.

As in Kunar Province, Archangel SFAAT fell under the umbrella of a Battle Space Integrator.   On COP Shinwar, the BSI consisted of a downsized infantry company which will be referred to as “Shinwar BSI”.  The Shinwar BSI was a fairly small unit; their one maneuver element was a platoon minus, approximately 25 personnel.  Archangel SFAAT and Shinwar BSI did not have the immediate success of Team Phalanx and Fortress BSI as the ANA in Nangarhar were in a very different state than those in Kunar.

The 2/4/201 ANA (2/4 ANA) on COP Shinwar was a freshly stood-up organization.  They had recently completed their basic training regimen and were deployed to Shinwar roughly three months before CT Bastogne arrived.  Being new, 2/4 ANA was severely limited in all capabilities, and as a result it was decided that the BSI would take on a more active role in combat operations in coordination with the SFAAT.  In theory this seemed like an excellent course of action, enabling the SFAAT to get out and observe the ANA at every opportunity.  In execution, however, communication and coordination between the BSI and SFAAT were slow to mature, and as a result ANA training did not proceed as expeditiously as it could have.

These issues occurred early in the deployment; but once resolved, the dynamic changed and the SFAAT and BSI forged new mechanics for successful mission execution.  The SFAAT now had exclusive involvement in the ANA’s planning processes.  The Kandak would run three Toulay patrols a day, all of which were planned a month in advance by the Kandak S3 with the Toulay advisor team.  The patrol schedule would be based off intelligence collected by the S2 or local National Directorate of Security (NDS) agents, additionally synching the IO campaign run by the Kandak RCA officer.  Every two-week period had a “focus” district where each Toulay would conduct at least two patrols and the Kandak RCA would go to mosques on Jumu’ah.  This was designed to have the RCA influence the civilian populous and have the Toulays shape insurgent activity.  At the end of this two-week period there would be a joint ANSF operation in a major village in the “focus” district.

The KDK would plan these operations with the Toulay advisor team and conduct a full briefing and terrain model rehearsal for the KDK.  In the early morning hours before the operation all ANSF units involved, i.e. Afghan Uniformed Police, NDS, Afghan Border Police and or Provincial Response Company (PRC) would meet for the operations order at COP Shinwar.  The KDK would clear a route to the objective village using an ANA route clearance package, establish blocking positions and provide local security teams to support the ANSF police units in clearing and searching the village.  At the completion of the mission, all ANSF commanders and the GIRoA district governor would conduct a shura (a consultative council) with the local leaders.  The KDK RCA officer and Mullah would also pray at the local mosque and usually conduct an aid drop at a school or medical clinic.

During the planning process for these joint ANSF missions, the SFAAT would update the BSI and both groups would sketch out their own joint courses of action (COA).  When the KDK’s order was finalized, the BSI and SFAAT would use the COA that allowed the SFAAT to retain freedom of maneuver with the KDK and had the BSI in a supporting and securing role. 

In every KDK level operation the BSI would secure the SFAAT, or the immediate area, in order to allow the SFAAT to advise the KDK tactical operations center (TOC).  As the TOC moved so did the SFAAT.  In the event that the ANA lost contact with an element or reporting was unclear, the BSI would move to position where they could observe the operation and provide the SFAAT with more accurate reporting on the ANA.  In the event that an ANA unit was in danger of being destroyed or overrun, the BSI would move to support them. 

In smaller Toulay level patrols the SFAAT would have one to two vehicles supported by the BSI maneuver platoon, usually in four to five vehicles elements.  Coalition vehicles would travel as an organic element with the ANA in a separate element in the lead, approximately 400 meters ahead.  Once we reached the objective, SFAAT personnel would dismount and move with their ANA counterparts.  The BSI would move in their own formation to support the SFAAT or ANA.  In every instance the ANA conducted the mission, the SFAAT advised, and the BSI supported.  This dynamic allowed the SFAAT to view ANA operations with minimal Coalition support.

On 4JUL2013, Archangel SFAAT and Shinwar BSI left COP Shinwar for FOB Fenty and the COP footprint was turned over to 2/4 ANA.  In less than one week they returned to COP Shinwar as Level II Advisors.  In Level II the SFAAT and approximately ten BSI soldiers flew via CH-47 Chinook helicopters to COP Shinwar to meet with and check up on the ANA.  Each Level II mission lasted between 6-8 hours.  Three such Level II Advising missions were conducted in August, Team Archangel’s final month in Afghanistan.

Lessons Learned

What follows are several key lessons learned from our collective experiences as advisors in RC East.  The first, and perhaps the most important lesson was to not use American standards in garrison efficiency or tactical prowess as a metric for coaching and assessing the Afghans.  Due to their developing infrastructure, training, equipment, logistics and education system, they are a long way from having or indeed needing the level of effectiveness and efficiency as our own forces.  They will find solutions to their problems, solutions which may look different than what American forces are comfortable with accepting.  The “harder right” an advisor must take is to help his Afghan counterpart to identify all parts of a problem, examine or help develop a solution to that problem, and assess its effectiveness within the proper context.  Another change in mindset was to stop thinking about the mission in terms of “Afghan-good-enough”.  This is an inherently negative term, and at best a backhanded compliment placing the Afghan soldier as a “less than” individual.  An “Afghan-good-enough” mindset places soldiers and leaders in the frame of mind where mission success equals doing just enough to get the Afghans by, because that is all they are capable of doing.  A continuous, objective, and contextual assessment can only be made if advisors maintain a clearly defined endstate: “2/4 ANA Toulays capable of planning and conducting tactically safe and sound organic patrolling at the Platoon level and above”.  Upon redeployment, we described our ANA counterparts as trained professional soldiers ready to defend their nation—not simply a bunch of guys who were “good enough”.  The First Brigade Commander at the time, COL JP McGee, expressed this mindset when referencing the difference in the Afghan approach and accepting their solutions:

"It would be folly to try to roll up into every valley and fight [the insurgents]. It is what we used to do.  I think [the Afghans] will pursue a very different approach than we did.... more patient, more focused on endurance as opposed to attrition of the enemy, and I think eventually the Taliban will lose relevance and support over time.”[i]

Understand The Mission: Let The Afghans Fight the Fight… “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”

In Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) 10-11, 1st Brigade Combat Team (1BCT) “Bastogne” 101 ABN DIV (AA) dominated the rugged terrain of Kunar Province. That was a different time and environment.  Afghanistan had changed very much between OEF 10-11 and OEF 12-13.  This was a fact the 1BCT Commander made abundantly clear when he addressed his soldiers before the deployment.  He wanted his soldiers to treat Afghans soldiers and civilians with dignity and respect, and adopt the proper tone and stance for every situation.  We were soldiers but also humanitarians, teachers, and trainers.  This being the case, the decisive operation for OEF 12-13 was the SFAAT mission.  Advising, mentoring and preparing the ANA were the priorities.  This was hard for many soldiers to comprehend, including some personnel on SFAATs.

Without complete and total buy-in at every level, the SFAAT mission cannot succeed.  It is not an overstatement that the change from a combat oriented mission to an advisory mission requires a quantum shift in thinking and behavior.  The culture we have as soldiers in the United States Army is to move quickly, attack problems quickly, and achieve results quickly. These are not conducive to the advisory mission.  The hallmarks of a good advisor are eternal optimism, endless enthusiasm, a lot of patience, a penchant for careful inquiry and analysis, and a healthy tolerance for mistakes.

The guidance given to Advisor-BSI teams across Combined Team (CT) Bastogne was to let the Afghans “fight the fight”, but also to not let them fail.  Their soldiers and leaders have seen for years what American combat power is capable of doing to the enemy, and they initially took a degree of comfort knowing we would patrol with them.  As advisors, we needed to break them of this reliance in order to prepare them for our eventual withdrawal.  While early in the deployment American aircraft often flew directly overhead to support US forces, keeping them on hand yet out of sight became the preferred method.  This was a forcing function to push the Afghans not to rely on American assets, but if the situation became dire the advisors and BSI still had the ability to prevent them from failing.

This was a good dynamic for two major reasons.  First and foremost, US forces remained in the “back-seat,” ensuring at all times that Afghan forces were the ones actually executing the mission, which was a major step toward showing the local populace that the Afghan Army and security forces were capable and willing to protect them without direct American involvement.  Second, this placed American forces as close as possible to the Afghan main effort, enabling the advisor teams and the BSI commanders to assess the effectiveness of the Afghans in combat.  By the end of that deployment, Afghan security forces were conducting unilateral patrols throughout Kunar and Nangarhar with no direct American support.

Just like combat assets, it can be difficult for advisors to deny the Afghans equipment that Coalition Forces have become so dependent upon.  An American element would never patrol without counter-IED (CIED) devices; however these are a rarity in the Afghan Army.  Through much of the deployment Toulays would request to integrate into American formations to take advantage of our CIED capabilities.  Every time they were denied, as we could not allow the ANA to rely on technology they would not have in a year’s time.  However, this did not mean we simply wished the ANA “good luck with those IEDs”.  Instead, it was our job to help the ANA figure out an alternate path to defeat IEDs.  The Toulay advisor team at Shinwar trained all 500 ANA soldiers on an IED training lane built by an American explosive ordinance disposal team.  Subsequently the ANA were trained to identify IEDs, they were reporting dozens more, prompting the ANA Brigade to attach an ANA route clearance patrol to the Kandak.  The Toulays had their own organic CIED equipment, and their soldiers were more confident in defeating IEDs on their own without any need of future Coalition Forces involvement.

Likewise, prior to patrols American platoon leaders will use TIGR, a program similar to Google Earth, and create detailed and colorful graphics and imagery for their soldiers.  Knowing every in and out of any piece of terrain enables Coalition Forces to intricately plan and consider every variable and contingency.  To not do so is considered irresponsible as patrolling without imagery is essentially patrolling blind.The ANA obviously do not have this capability; and as a result their planning was less detailed.  Some Americans chose to provide the ANA with TIGR graphics in an attempt to have them plan more like Americans; prompting the ANA and all but doing planning for them.  That’s not the mission. 

The ANA will never have access to a system like TIGR, and  should not become accustomed to using it.  Instead, advisors in both Kunar and Nangarhar encouraged and assisted the Afghans to utilize the 1:50,000 scale maps available to them through their supply chains to plan and execute missions.  By teaching their NCO’s map reading and showing their operations staff the usefulness of constructing detailed terrain models, advisors were able to teach the Afghans to plan the “old-fashioned” way.  The Afghan officers and NCO’s had to assume risk during planning.  On the ground they would constantly assess the terrain and environment and refine the pla.  So, rather than handing the ANA a plan, advisers fostered a bold, flexible attitude grounded in an Afghan planning process.

This pattern was applied across the board.  Getting new boots, spare parts for vehicles, air conditioner units, water, etc. on a day-to-day basis are great examples of this—the military equivalent of teaching them how to fish.  As advisors, particularly newly arrived advisors trying to build rapport, it is easy to fall into the trap of acquiring these things through American channels in order to earn the Afghan’s trust.  While that may be a quick way to make friends, it does nothing for the Afghans in the long-term.  It may be tough to watch an Afghan soldier walk up a mountain in blown-out sneakers with a machine gun over his shoulder because it has no sling, but until his own chain of command can provide for his needs, the problem remains.  Therefore, we utilized the advisor chain, identified the heart of the issue, and helped our counterparts figure it out.

Personally Assess Your Counterparts

As a newly arrived SFAAT, the hand-off from the out-going advisor team can be somewhat vague and nuanced.  Unlike deployments where one maneuver unit provided detailed reports and information about the enemy situation, disposition, and recent activity to another, an out-going advisor has no such operational and tactical detail.  Much of what they tell you will be based upon their personal assessment of their counterparts—an assessment which may or may not be clouded by friendships they have formed (or lack thereof), or by their own base of knowledge.  There is rarely hard evidence, no data, no metrics--its only one advisor’s opinion.  Therefore, careful attention should be given to what the out-going advisor has to say or not say.  And it is essential for the incoming advisor to personally verify his report and form an objective assessment from the outset.

To better enable this transition, the incoming and outgoing SFAAT teams need to be in contact with each other months before deployment.  They don’t have to discuss the particulars of the Kandak but rather the incoming team should request to observe specific actions or information of the outgoing team that support their endstate, i.e. building a patrol schedule, conducting a security shura.  The two teams should develop a relief in place event checklist including patrols.  This checklist does not negate the fact that much of an incoming team’s information about the KDK will be from another’s personal opinion.

In the case of the 4/2/201 CS Kandak, the out-going Reconnaissance Toulay advisor before was a Chemical Warfare officer. He had an excellent rapport with his counterparts, and provided detailed information about their various personalities and capabilities.  However, he admittedly had little experience with a reconnaissance organization or with small unit tactics.  So on the positive side, the Team Phalanx recon advisors were able to use this information to quickly establish a solid rapport with their counterparts by picking up where their predecessors left off.  However, there was a lot of work to do determining how the Recon Toulay was employed by their brigade, what their capabilities were, what their task organization looked like, and how effectively their leaders and junior leaders were training their soldiers.  Had this process been omitted, the initial expectation of Recon Toulay’s performance and readiness would have far exceeded what was discovered to be the case. 

Just as important in forming the initial read on your counterparts is taking what they report with a polite, unspoken grain of salt—the old “trust but verify”.  The Afghans are fully aware that a large part of an SFAAT advisor’s job is to assess and report on their effectiveness.  Therefore, there is a tendency to stretch the truth, a little or a lot, and try to convince the SFAAT advisors they are “good to go”.  And while they well may be, the only way to know with certainty is to get involved in their day-to-day activities.

For the Toulay advisor team at COP Shinwar, there were no outgoing Toulay advisors.  The outgoing team had some limited contact with the Kandak, Toulay, and platoon leadership, but no dedicated observation or mentorship.  In retrospect, coming in blind was beneficial, as the  Toulay advisor team was able to make fresh, unbiased assessments from the beginning.

Much was made of the difficulties of establishing rapport with ANA.  We had no such issues.  We quickly found common ground as soldiers working toward the same goal and rapport was established quickly.  Being passionate and committed will quickly prove to your counterpart that you are dedicated to his success and the betterment of his country.  So while our cultures and religions are worlds apart, the ANA, like people everywhere, still appreciate humor, positive energy compassion and will respond, just like Americans, to enthusiastic leadership.  Be culturally aware, but not overly sensitive.  And if your counterpart senses a weakness in you – personal or professional, he will dominate the advisor relationship.  Be firm but magnanimous and live for your counterparts. 

Maintain a Positive Relationship with the BSI

This point is often overlooked, and can become one of the unanticipated challenges of an SFAAT deployment.  The only way for an SFAAT to effectively do its job is to work hand-in-hand with its parent BSI.  This can place a variety of traditionally non-combat arms soldiers out on patrol with infantrymen.  For instance, on a normal deployment it is fairly uncommon for Adjutant-Generals corps Captains or Signal Lieutenants and NCOs to go on dismounted patrols with infantry platoons.  On an SFAAT deployment this happens routinely.  For this reason, SFAAT personnel, regardless of their specialty, must be able to pull their own weight during such missions.  While the advisor focus is on their Afghan counterparts, and the BSI’s job is to enable the SFAAT to maintain that focus, the SFAAT and the BSI must be able to rely on each other and work together should they come into enemy contact.

For this reason, SFAAT personnel must be completely integrated within the BSI prior to deploying.  To the extent that time allows, the advisor team must have the opportunity to learn the BSI standard operating procedures, conduct adequate physical training to meet basic mission requirements, and to form a mutual understanding of how they will work together downrange.  Waiting until deployment to form this relationship, while not impossible, can lead to wasted time as the leadership of both organizations hash out their respective roles and responsibilities.

Additionally, advisors who have worked with Afghans are familiar with “Jumu’ah”, which is the Afghan day of rest, corresponding to Friday.  It is important for advisors not to see this as simply a day off.  The BSI who is pulling tower guard every day and working to secure the COP or FOB does not get a day off, and neither should the SFAAT.  Jumu’ah should be seen as an opportunity to plan out goals for the week, and even to help relieve the BSI of some of their daily duties around the COP.  This is not a lot to ask for, and can go a long way in maintaining a positive working relationship.  In the same manner, the BSI can reciprocate by lending their soldiers to occasionally assist with training the Afghans or to help acquire materials to help the SFAAT do its job more effectively.  Overall, each component of the US force on the ground must understand the roles they play in the mission, but be willing to meet one another half way as the mission requires.  The bottom line is that the SFAAT and BSI must present a unified front to the Afghan unit.  Anything less creates daylight between the two organizations which the ANA will see, ultimately degrading the mission.

Tailor the SFAAT

Like any training or mentoring operation, civilian or military, getting the right people in the right jobs is the key to success.  As such, it is very important to select individuals who are well suited to this sort of work.  Extroverted people who are basically friendly and able to give and receive honest feedback are ideal candidates.  Ideally these individuals would have experience in whatever field they are advising in (e.g. supply, signal).  The most experienced personnel in these specialized fields are usually enlisted. 

There is a trend in manning SFAATs to use officers to fill any position; Infantry Lieutenants as logistics advisors, Artillery officers advising as Adjutant-Generals conterparts, et al.  This is because junior officers, especially Armor, Infantry and Artillery are in excess.  This is an issue, as these officers most likely have no experience in the fields which they are expected to advise.  Granted, given time and effort these officers may be able to gain a level of understanding in their field.  Officers in these mismatched positions freely admitted that they were learning along with their counter part and that an MOS qualified soldier would serve much better.  However many of these individuals still accomplished great things through hard work and strong relationships.  However, all things being equal, an enlisted Supply Sergeant or Human Resources Specialist would come into the position with years of experience and most likely have much greater success.

“Train the Trainer”

The concept of “train the trainer” is far from new, but applying it properly while advising an Afghan unit is different than what American soldiers are used to.  Early in the deployment the advisor team would lead “train the trainer” for the Toulays.    The ANA were very enthusiastic learners and it seemed they would become good trainers in their own right.  That was a bad assumption for reasons that, initially, were not clear.  It was not because the training was ineffective or because they were lazy or uninterested.  In fact, it was a sociological issue.  Specifically, the assumption that ANA NCO’s held the same stature, responsibility, and understanding of what a good NCO is, was not a good one.

Since the beginning of OEF, the ANA have not conducted organized training for themselves in any capacity  Their basic training is taught by Coalition Forces, and when deployed throughout the country their training was continued by Coalition Forces.  Therefore, the concept that their NCOs would ultimately train their own soldiers was completely foreign to most of them.   Like their soldiers, their NCO’s received a crash course in soldiering, but had never received a structured, organized education.  Nor were they ever expected to conduct training themselves.  They did not know how to teach because they were not raised in a military system with a teacher, instructor, or mentor they could emulate.  So for the SFAAT, it was much more than simply training the Afghans on how to read maps or zero their weapons.   It was also imbuing their NCOs with both the technical know-how and the tools of trade to lead and train their soldiers.  So until the Afghans were capable of both taking training and conducting it on their soldiers, our mission was not complete.

To help solve this issue Team Archangel created a six-week ANA NCO Academy.  This course would see two iterations, the first was advisor led andthe second was equal parts advisor and ANA led.  The goal was to teach these NCO’s how to be NCO’s. The first half of the course focused on duties, responsibilities, and the many intangible aspects that make NCOs the backbone of any Army.  Topics included leadership, teaching, religion, trust, soldier welfare, et al.   The second half was a focused on tactics and maintenance.  Topics included weapons density (especially crew served weapons), vehicle and weapons maintenance, patrolling techniques, et al.  The course was comprehensive and very detailed to the point that ANA NCO graduates were subject matter experts who “knew their stuff” and could teach their soldiers with confidence.

Advisors were constantly reminding the ANA students of their need to pass this knowledge on. Stressing that they would be the knowledge-base within the KDK appealed to their pride and helped instill a sense of duty. Through the academy, students were required to teach refresher courses to prepare them for training their own soldiers. The second iteration of the academy saw ANA NCO’s teaching other ANA NCO’s for the first time. Serving as co-instructors with the advisers, the NCO’s were very motivated to teach.

The ANA NCO academy was successful. It produced a group of confident, competent NCO’s who were driven to better their soldiers through training them. Now that the ANA were ready to train themselves, they needed a dedicated training time. For this the advisor team brought together the Toulay command teams and the Kandak Training and Education officer (TEO).  They were able to craft a training schedule around the rotational Quick Reaction Force (QRF) schedule and integrating the necessary literacy and religion classes. As the months wore on, the soldiers became more proficient and the training turned to rehearsals and situational training exercises (STX). Through this intensive training, first led by advisors and then organically, the ANA NCO’s had become the backbone of the Kandak and were the ones truly responsible for its growth.

Advise and Encourage Joint Operations and Operations Outside of Combat      

During Operation Enduring Freedom, Coalition Forces would often search homes for men and or materiel supporting the insurgency.  As the ANA took the lead in operations, many assumed that the ANA would continue these searches.  However, under the current Afghan constitution only the Afghan Police have the authority to search homes.  This was a critical gap in the capabilities of the ANA that can only be filled through cooperation with Afghan police forces.

In Nangarhar Province, the 2/4 Kandak, the Afghan Uniform Police (AUP), Afghan Border Police (ABP) and district government officials, were able to forge a strong, supportive relationship.  This relationship did not begin with massive joint operations.  Rather it began with the ANA, AUP and ABP cross loading and trading critical supplies to support each other’s missions.  As one organization was low on firewood during the winter, or low on fuel after a string of missions others would loan out these vital supplies to sustain operations.  This cooperation would expand to the Kandak running resupply and QRF missions to the local police checkpoints and observation post.  It took time and much courting, but eventually the ANSF and local governments in Nangarhar began conducting joint operations as described above in “Operational Mechanics”.

Insurgents will take every opportunity to spread propaganda and disinformation about the Afghan government, Afghan Security Forces (ANSF), and Coalition Forces.  It was well known that insurgents would enter mosques on Jumu’ah and promote their cause, drum up discontent, intimidate the populous or collect illegal taxes.  Insurgents chose Jumu’ah because no ANSF operated on this day of rest and prayer.  They operated with impunity on this day and used it as an example of their superiority.  No ANSF was countering this or conducting any type of information operations (IO) or public relations with the populous.  This greatly frustrated the 2/4 Kandak RCA officer at COP Shinwar.  The RCA officer was a dynamic, passionate, and sincere man; if there was ever a man to be the voice of the Kandak it was he.  The Toulay advisor team proposed that he lead an IO campaign in support of the Kandak and GIRoA.  He and the Kandak Mullah decided to personally speak with many local leaders and clerics to air grievances and discuss security.  They also received permission to attend mosques on Jumu’ah to pray with and speak with locals about the ANSF and GIRoA.  One Toulay would conduct a patrol to a particular mosque in order to escort the RCA and Mullah.  Soldiers would rotate off security to pray with locals as well.  These IO missions presented the ANA in different light to the people of Nangarhar, who had previous only seen the soldiers patrolling in HMMWV’s or in firefights with insurgents.  The RCA officer was very successful and the Kandak became a more popular force within districts in the province.  Every ANA Kandak has the capability to conduct an effective IO campaign.  All one needs is a charismatic and committed Afghan to lead the effort.


Whatever the ultimate success of Afghan Security Forces may be, and however American advisors may be employed in future operations, this article’s purpose is to provide a snapshot for future advisors outside of manuals and doctrine—as General Sir Andrew Skeen described it, we are simply “Passing it On”.[ii]  This is what two company-level advisors saw on the ground in RC East, and the lessons learned come from their experiences and opinions formed there.  It is doubtful that any American forces will face an identical mission in the future.  However, advisory missions bear many commonalities in approach regardless of the cultures or peoples in question.  Hopefully this brief account will assist soldiers and officers in future conflicts who are faced with a similar mission set.

End Notes

[i] Dozier, Kimberly, “Afghan Troops Hold Their Ground at High Cost,” Associated Press, April 27, 2013, Accessed August 2014,

[ii] Andrew Skeen, Passing it On: Fighting the Pushtun on Afghanistan’s Frontier (Fort Leavenworth: Foreign Military Studies Office, 2010)


About the Author(s)

Captain Thomas McShea is an Armor officer who served in the 101st Airborne Division.  He has served as a Platoon Leader, Executive Officer, and an Afghan Reconnaissance Company Advisor.  His military education includes the Army Reconnaissance Course, Pathfinder School, Airborne School, and Air Assault School.  He is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Captain Kyle Harnitchek is an Infantry officer in the 101st Airborne Division. He has served as a Platoon Leader, SFAAT Company Advisor, and Executive Officer. His Military Education includes Ranger School, Airborne School, and Air Assault School. He is a graduate of Florida State University.